LAKE PLACID — Today, artists on John Brown Day, three who carry the spirit of the abolitionist buried in Lake Placid will be recognized for their work weaving art and social justice together — local artists Karen “Ren” Davidson Seward, who created the Memorial Field for Black Lives at John Brown Farm, choreographer Tiffany Rea-Fisher, and Rage Against the Machine guitarist and activist Tom Morello.
This is the first year that all three recipients of the award from John Brown Lives! are artists.
“It’s completely accidental but it’s no accident,” JBL! Executive Director Martha Swan said. “These are three artists of tremendous conviction and talent who use their artistic gifts — powers — in the service of the community and their struggle for justice.”
Swan said the “Spirit of John Brown” means different things to every different person. To her, as a white person, it means taking on the struggle for racial justice as an ally, in collaboration with shift of color, and working to have the right relationship with her country’s thorny history.
“John Brown sacrificed all to address the greatest evil of his time.” Swan said.
Swan said white Americans are often trained to see Black struggles as a Black problem to solve.
“Fundamentally, it is an American problem,” she said.
Rea-Fisher and Davidson Seward have collaborated at John Brown Farm several times. On Monday, Brown’s birthday, they held a sunset ceremony at the memorial field with a dance performance choreographed by Rea-Fisher, translating the song “John Brown’s Body” into dance.
“It’s amazing to find myself in this company,” Davidson Seward said.
Morelo has spent decades “singing truth to power,” Swan said, primarily through the explosive and revolutionary rock band Rage Against the Machine. The band’s songs are intense bursts of powerful political messages, with radical hooks and brutal delivery.
In the song “Settle for Nothing,” vocalist Zack de la Rocha screams “If we don’t take action now, we’ll settle for nothing later.”
John Brown Day will be celebrated at John Brown Farm today at 3 pm and the Spirit of John Brown Freedom awardees will be in attendance.
When Davidson Seward moved to Saranac Lake 18 years ago, she almost immediately connected with John Brown Lives. She said it was “astonishing” to feel the solidarity and purpose she found at its events.
A graphic designer by trade, she put her skills to use for the museum.
In 2020, as the world’s attention was on police violence against Black people after the killing of George Floyd and months of protests, Davidson Seward created the Memorial Field for Black Lives at John Brown Farm.
The field around the statue of John Brown is dotted with around 100 panels bearing the names of Black men and women killed by law enforcement or mobs, showing the violence that has persisted for decades.
On Monday, John Brown’s birthday, Davidson Seward added 37 new panels, titled “Spiraling Round the Promise of the Right to Vote,” focused on people who lost their lives fighting for the right to vote. She described these panels as a sort of “voting rights history 101.”
“I wasn’t taught this stuff in school,” Davidson Seward said.
She said this exhibit is “prescient for the times.”
There is a lot of national discussion about voting rights now as the country heads toward a midterm election on Nov. 8.
John Brown came to Lake Placid in 1849 to work with abolitionist Gerrit Smith, who granted plots of land in the area to Black men, allowing them the right to vote. At the time, land ownership was a requirement to participate in democracy.
“Rights are not absolute,” Davidson Seward said in reference to a recent draft opinion from the Supreme Court, revealing that the majority has elected to strike down the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which established the right to abortion in the US “Voting, certainly, has never been absolute for a lot of people. A few people worked very hard to disenfranchise a lot of people.”
In researching dozens of racist killings for the memorial field, she said she felt a requirement to find all the facts of each person’s death.
“They deserve a voice,” Davidson Seward. “They deserve that their stories are factual.”
She feels that often, pieces of these stories are withheld, hidden on purpose, to conceal “upsetting information.”
“People are keeping the truth from us in the interest of keeping us calm,” she said.
But the facts are upsetting, and without that knowledge, people won’t speak up, vote or rage against the machine, at best, and blame victims, at worst.
“It’s very easy to cast aspersions on the victims when you’ve stereotyped a whole race of people,” Davidson Seward said.
She sees this hiding of information in creating some people’s negative view of Brown as a domestic terrorist. He lived in a time were violence against Black people was pervasive. He was enraged, put his life on the line, responded with a violent fight at Harper’s Ferry and was executed for that.
“The whole Union army took up his cause a few years after he was hanged in a slave state for raiding an arsenal to free four million enslaved people,” Davidson Seward said.
She said with the full context of slavery in America, and his motivation to end it, his actions were no worse than what plantation owners were doing legally under state laws.
“He didn’t have to give his life for the cause,” Davidson Seward said.
But he did. Davidson Seward said the least people can do today is to speak when things are morally wrong, and vote, or they risk losing their democracy.
Rea-Fisher has recently been splitting her time between Saranac Lake and Harlem, but she’s been visiting the Adirondacks for 18 years, and considers it her “creative home.” She said as she has become deeply involved with John Brown Lives!, combining her art with her social justice work at the farm has been “empowering.”
She believes Brown would be glad to see a Black woman making art about justice at his gravesite. Rea-Fisher said she centers themes of joy and hope in a lot of her work, but she’s never just making “art for art’s sake.” There are strong messages in the non-verbal art form of dance.
“Something that the arts do really well is they take really difficult and challenging subject matters and allow people to form discussions around it.” Rea-Fisher said. “The abstraction, I think, helps.”
Rea-Fisher was originally supposed to produce a dance film as part of the 2020-2021 cultural exchange program for the 2023 FISU World University Games in Lake Placid. The pandemic threw a wrench in those plans at the last minute, as the dancers were on their way up in van with all their costumes.
The Lake Placid Center for the Arts, which had commissioned the film, asked her to still make an Adirondack dance film project.
Rea-Fisher researched the area to find subject material. She said she kept seeing things about the infamous “Lady in the Lake” story, but it was a sad story.
LPCA gallery manager John Donk suggested John Brown Farm. She had never been before, and admitted she was a bit embarrassed to have not known about it, but was excited to work there.
She started collaborating with Davidson Seward at the Memorial Field for Black Lives. Rea-Fisher said the film should premier sometime this year. The two committed to five years of working together on art projects.
To Rea-Fisher, she said the spirit of John Brown is being a part of the fight for everyone to be seen as “fully human.”
During the period of the coronavirus pandemic when the majority of museums were closed in 2020, Davidson Seward said John Brown Farm had 70,000 visitors. On a usual year, she said there would be around 20,000.
She’s still adding names to the memorial field, representing recent and old killings.
Patrick Lyoya, a 26-year-old, was killed by a Grand Rapids police officer during a traffic stop for an alleged license plate violation in April.
Davidson Seward recently took a drive around the country with her husband Peter to visit civil rights landmarks around the south. One of those was the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where, in 1963, terrorists with the Ku Klux Klan planted bombs under the steps and killed four girls — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair.
Davidson Seward now plans to add their names to the field.